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Passion and Competence

June 06, 2012

Which is more important when choosing board members?

On the LinkedIn nonprofit Q&A forum the other day, I saw a question that asked whether it was better to look for passionate board members or competent ones. I thought that the implied either/or tone of the question was inappropriate. But before I weighed in with my response, I thought I would search the internet and see what I could find on the subject of competence and passion.

When you search the internet, you should be prepared for anything, and yes, I had a few hits that are not appropriate for a general audience. But I found one interesting piece from the Harvard Business Review Blog Network that was even more interesting than the original question that initially started me on this research. Scott Anthony, an HBR Press author had a blog post titled Don’t Confuse Passion with Competence. I suddenly had much more respect for the original question – should I recruit passionate people or competent ones for my board?

Passion is an essential ingredient for any successful enterprise, even for the franchisee who is simply following the franchise formula. You and I both know there is a large difference between a franchise restaurant run by a passionate owner vs. one run by a competent owner who lacks passion. I also thought about the receptionist who is passionate about her responsibility for being responsible for first impressions, whether on the phone or in person, who stands head and shoulders above the merely competent counterpart.

However, notice that in each of the above examples it is implied that the passionate person was also fully competent in their job. So now I understand what bothered me about the original question. You can’t choose between a passionate board candidate and a competent candidate. It is not an either/or question. You must start with the basic skill set to be a board member and then hope to find someone who in addition to that, is passionate about your mission.

Mr. Anthony brought this up in his blog, Be Careful about Investing in the Passionate Entrepreneur – He May be Incompetent. Mr. Anthony talks about entrepreneurial bipolarity – for our purposes we will call it board member bipolarity. This is the ability to argue passionately that achieving the mission will change the world and then (“without skipping a beat”, Anthony says) honestly assessing the risks standing in the way of success and figuring out how to mitigate those risks. One without the other is unacceptable.

An ideal board member is someone who is very qualified to see reality; someone who realizes that it takes concrete actions to achieve a dream; but also someone that is so passionate about the mission of an organization that they will be willing to spend a great deal of energy identifying that reality, and taking action so that the dream can be fulfilled. How important do you think it is to find passion in your next board member? Does competence outweigh passion?

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